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Pittsburgh fans get a taste of Winter Classic ice

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

PITTSBURGH -- Dads and moms were doing their best to hold up their young boys and girls. Some veteran skaters cut through the ice with ease as snow fell all around them. Santa Claus arrived on the back of a Zamboni before lacing up his own skates for a quick workout before his big night.

The Winter Classic Community Rink at Stage AE opened for business at 3 p.m. Friday to long lines filled with eager skaters.

Since time doesn't allow for Pittsburghers to experience skating on the actual rink inside Heinz Field, the Penguins have given them the next best thing by building a rink just outside the stadium's doors.

"It's better than what I thought," Tom McMillan, the Penguins' V.P. of Communications, told NHL.com. "We thought of the backdrop of the city skyline and Mount Washington, the idea that people would feel like they're in the Winter Classic, and it's perfect, it created that. Heinz Field is just over your shoulder so even though you're not on the actual Winter Classic rink, because it's still being built, you're in the Winter Classic when you're here."

Thirteen different public skates, 38 amateur games and three hockey clinics will take place at the Community Rink through Jan. 2.

One of the main events will be the international bantam tournament featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins Elite and Washington Junior Capitals as well as teams from Sidney Crosby's hometown of Cole Harbour, N.S. and Evgeni Malkin's hometown of Magnitogorsk, Russia.

Mario Lemieux is one of the coaches of the Penguins Elite bantam team that will play at the Community Rink on Dec. 31.

"We wanted as many kids as possible to experience it because who knows when it's going to come here again," McMillan said.

Adults were having a blast, too.

"The smiles that everyone has, this is a once in a lifetime experience and it's just awesome," said Adam Prince, who was skating with his fiancé, Maggie O'Neill. "We're not going to be in Pittsburgh for the game, so this is just short of it."

Prince and O'Neill live in Raleigh, N.C., and they're Carolina Hurricanes' season ticket holders. O'Neill was decked out head to toe in 'Canes winter gear, but Prince grew up in the Pittsburgh area so the couple is here for the holiday.

The two met in Raleigh at Game 3 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Final.

"It's a hockey romance," O'Neill said. "We went skating last year and wanted to come skating again, and we saw this was happening. We're not going to ever experience this in Raleigh, so we're so lucky that it's happening in Pittsburgh."

Brothers Andrew and James Santelli were two of the hundreds of smiling skaters that touched the ice Friday. Andrew lives in Windermere, Fla., and works at Disney World, so the idea of winter has been foreign to him ever since the 28-year-old moved out of his parents' house in the Pittsburgh region.

"I've been anticipating the Winter Classic and following all the coverage online, but when they said they were going to do this I knew this was something I had to figure out a way to get to with my brother," Santelli said. "It's awesome. The whole experience of the Winter Classic is being outdoors and the purity of skating in the winter, and especially being in Florida I don't really get to experience winter at all so what better way to do it then with something like this."

Santelli decided Friday that he was going to host a Winter Classic party on New Year's Day. Prince and O'Neill did the same thing.

"The Winter Classic coming here is a showcase of the city and the game, and it just gives me goose bumps being out here skating and being able to do this," Prince said. "I can't wait 'til the game on the first. We're going to have a Winter Classic party and then continue to celebrate a day of hockey by going to the game with the Canes against New Jersey that night. It's going to be a whole hockey day. It's going to be awesome."

McMillan was thrilled to see how happy everyone was Friday. He said the team anticipates 12,000 people skating at the Community Rink before it closes to the public late on Jan. 1.

The rink is open on Christmas Day from noon until 9 p.m. There is one public session Sunday afternoon and another Monday night before going to two-a-days next Tuesday through Thursday. It'll be open from 6:30 p.m. until midnight on New Year's Eve and again for two 90-minute sessions following the Winter Classic on New Year's Day.

The rink will stay open on Jan. 2 for seven more games.

"Our goal was to make the week leading up to the Winter Classic a carnival of hockey in Pittsburgh," McMillan said. "The estimate is about 12,000 people on this ice in eight days. We'll have 10,000 at the alumni game and practice (on Dec. 31) and then 65,000 at the Winter Classic. A lot of Pittsburghers are going to remember this for a long time."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl.